The Very Necessary Parable of “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip”

This is the sort of book that makes you ache to have a child, so that you can help pass this wisdom on to the next generation. Ours, and those older than us, are too stubborn, I fear, to hear and understand what’s going on in George Saunders’s The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. As with Roald Dahl, there are selfish adults and a tireless precocious child, and in the style of Dr. Seuss, there’s an absurd threat–the orange, baseball-sized, goat-loving, screaming gappers. Just listen to how well simple sentence structure and repetition are used for comic effect:

There were approximately fifteen hundred gappers living in the sea near Frip. Each Frip family had about ten goats. Therefore there would normally be about five hundred gappers per goat. Tonight, however, with all fifteen hundred gappers in Capable’s yard, there were approximately one hundred fifty gappers per goat. Since the average goat can carry about sixty gappers before it drops to its knees and keels over on one side with a mortified look on its face, when Capable came out to brush gappers that night, she found every single one of her goats lying on its side with a mortified look on its face, completely covered with shrieking orange gappers.

Why the dim-witted gappers do this isn’t particularly important; they’re simply accepted and treated as a fact of life. (Look at how Saunders grounds them, first, with math.) In turn, that makes the reaction of the two other families seem almost logical, as they spend all of their money to get further and further away from the gappers (literally driving themselves into a swamp) rather than addressing the root of the problem, or bothering to actually work. (They thank God for helping them, mainly because that helps them to avoid helping others.) As Swift once proved, that’s the best sort of satire, using a crazy notion to reveal, by association, how crazy all the other things that enabled it must have been.

In any case, unsurprisingly, the aptly named Capable deals with her gapper infestation by switching over from the goat-based economy to one based on fishing, even though she has to teach herself through long trial-and-error, and tears. Her father–the old generation–represents those who are resistant to change, going so far as to only eat things that have been dyed white (make of that what you will). As a result, Capable is able to improve her home, and has a chance to turn her back on the families that once scorned and refused to help her. However, in a twist befitting The Three Little Pigs, she comes to the realization that

it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark. That is, it was fun at first, but then got gradually less fun, until it was really no fun at all.

She helps them, and on the very next page, set apart from the rest of the text, we learn the result of her kindness: And life got better. Her fortunes weren’t harmed by the imposition of guests–there were literally enough fish in the sea for all of them–and even the gappers wound up happier, now that they were getting cozy with a far more pliable subject–fences. Sure, we can resist change, especially when we’re already in a good position, but if we have the means to help everyone, isn’t that better?

These are the sort of lessons I want my child to understand, and what I wish some of the rich–especially those who inherited their money, or amassed it through inflated salaries built upon the backs of miserable minimum-wagers, or profited by banking on the failure of others–would come to terms with. That’s what makes this book so compelling, even though it’s a breezy 80 pages (including the 52 beautiful illustrations). That, and, of course, my favorite line:

Just because a lot of people are saying the same thing loudly over and over, doesn’t mean it’s true.

Don’t take my word, or that of the countless other reviews of this book. Make up your own mind, and maybe try a little tenderness instead of assuming–based on the fearmongering of others–that it’ll hurt.


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